So I finished The Hunger Games, and rather than trying to give an account of my reading of the rest of the book, or even of some of the things that struck me as particularly annoying, tedious or problematic (Prim! The Hunger Games!*), I ended up writing a slightly more analytical/synthetic account, spinning out of one of the major problems I had with the book (how does food get to the Capitol?) and turning, as things do in my head, into a potential major research project on representations of the University in speculative fiction.
It’s under a fold for length and spoilers (main body is spoiler-free, but footnotes contain minor spoilers for the Hunger Games themselves).
One of the many things I heard about this book before I read it was that it is, in some sense, ‘about’ food. Certainly food functions in it as one of the main markers of the difference between the Capitol and the Districts, and between individual Districts (the cultural differences between the Districts are reflected in their different kinds of bread, for example). (Don’t worry, I’m not going to start in on the bread again. Though I could.) But the way food is acquired in the Capitol just very literally doesn’t make any sense. Here’s a couple of passages, the first from when Katniss is hanging out alone in her fancy quarters in the Capitol (p.92):
I programme the wardrobe for an outfit to my taste. The windows zoom in and out on parts of the city at my command. You need only whisper a type of food from a gigantic menu into a mouthpiece and it appears, hot and steamy, before you in less than a minute.
It’s actually impossible to tell whether this is Star-Trek-style replicator technology (a machine produces whatever food you name), an automated process (voice recognition software triggers a… gigantic vending machine? Which then shoots the food towards you through a… pipe?), or more-or-less room service, with a human bringing Katniss the food, but not registering in the text. If the last option seems unlikely, by the way, there is at least one other place in the text where Katniss does talk about being served food by humans in a way which renders them just as invisible as this. It’s while she’s on the train to the Capitol (p. 67):
The moment I slide into my chair I’m served an enormous platter of food. Eggs, ham, piles of fried potatoes. A tureen of fruit sits in ice to keep it chilled. The basket of rolls they set before me would keep my family going for a week. There’s an elegant glass of orange juice…
So Katniss has a history of concentrating on food to the extent that she blocks out the presence of other people in the room (or at least the presence of the serving staff: Effie Trinket, Peeta and Haymitch are present in the scene above and they’re all described in some detail, while the staff are just ‘they’.).
But I digress. The point of the passage above is simply that it’s unclear whether the Capitol has replicator technology. The passage I really wanted to talk about is this one, when Katniss is having lunch with her stylist, Cinna (p.79):
Cinna… presses a button on the side of the table. The top splits and from below rises a second tabletop that holds our lunch. Chicken and chunks of oranges cooked in a creamy sauce laid on a bed of pearly white grain, tiny green peas and onions, rolls shaped like flowers, and for dessert, a pudding the colour of honey.
I try to imagine assembling this meal myself back home. Chickens are too expensive, but I could make do with a wild turkey. I’d need to shoot a second turkey to trade for an orange. Goat’s milk would have to substitute for cream. We can grow peas in the garden. I’d have to get wild onions from the woods [BECAUSE GROWING ONIONS IN THE GARDEN, OBVIOUSLY, THAT'S JUST CRAZY TALK.]. I don’t recognize the grain… Fancy rolls would mean another trade with the baker, perhaps for two or three squirrels. As for the pudding, I can’t even guess what’s in it. Days of hunting and gathering for this one meal and even then it would be a poor substitute for the Capitol version.
What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by?
And here, at the point where Collins seems most aware of the politics and economics of the distribution of labour, is the moment where she reveals her most profound ignorance – and a large part of the fantasy structure of the book’s economics and politics. Because actually, even though Cinna gets the food at the touch of a button, that’s not how it came into being. Someone grew the peas, picked the wild onions, killed the chicken, grew the orange, shipped them all to the Capitol, traded them to the person who cooked them. Unless they have replicator technology, in which case someone invented the technology, mined the minerals for the replicator, manufactured the replicator, shipped the replicator and installed it in Cinna’s sofa, laboured to produce fuel to power the replicator, dealt with the toxic waste from the old-model replicator that this one replaced. Either way, all those hours that it would have taken you to get this meal together, Katniss – those hours were spent by someone. By lots of someones.
So at exactly the point where we might register the injustices caused by the inequalities between the people who labour to produce food and the people who consume it, instead what we register as an injustice is the fact that some people – even Katniss! – can’t have everything they want at the touch of a button. The invisibilization of labour on which the production of the meal depends, on Cinna’s level of the narrative (to Cinna, the labour which produces the meal is invisible), is repeated, not critiqued, at the authorial/readerly level (it remains just as invisible to us). Notice the question Katniss never asks, a question we (as readers) actually can’t deduce the answer to from the information we’re given: Where did this food come from? Who made it? Who should I thank for it? The only question is: Why can’t I have it without having to work for it?
The thing that’s very clear from the massively wasteful, resource-heavy, high-tech, consumer culture of the Capitol is that the District system (I looked up the wiki too, to see if this would be covered in the later books, but it’s not) would be absolutely insufficient to sustain the Capitol’s lifestyle. There are no mining districts for minerals, other than coal. The power produced by the coal mined from one near-exhausted seam is clearly not enough for the kinds of things we see the Capitol do. The only way this social system can work, I realized, is if my throwaway snarky comment from the last post (the Capitol isn’t dependent on the people of District 13 for power but only forces them to mine to humilate them) is true. There must be a whole shadow economy alongside the District system to enable the Capitol to sustain its lifestyle: there must be a Third World outside Panem on which Panem really depends.
And this, although I’m pretty sure Suzanne Collins doesn’t know it, is the most damning parallel between Panem and the contemporary U.S. – which runs off exactly this kind of ‘shadow’ economy, and off the fantasy that it doesn’t. The Hunger Games reflects a USian fantasy about a self-sufficient country with a hard-working, outdoorsy, frontier-type working-class (or possibly, depending on how you read Katniss’s father’s secret survival knowledge, a wise, in-tune-with-nature indigenous class) – but the fantasized system it constructs both requires and renders invisible the productive labour of a huge class of people whom the book simply fantasizes out of existence.
I will never have the time to do this, but I’d love to do a proper Marxist/Freudian reading of The Hunger Games (and the Harry Potter books too), tracing the exact psychic mechanisms by which the economic realities of late consumer capitalism are deformed, repressed, substituted, denied, split, etc. A social universe which makes no sense to this extent should reveal an awful lot about what we think social systems need, how they work, what they’re for.
I’m struggling to express what I mean here, so here’s a self-contained example which I hope will clarify it, and serve to end this post, which has got too long again.**
One of the things I was struck by when I was reading The Hunger Games was the idea that there should be a District Fourteen where they do all the research and development for all that tech: there’s a throwaway reference to ‘the Capitol’s labs’, but otherwise, again, there’s no sense that in order to have a lot of cutting-edge technology, you have to have a lot of highly educated scientists, engineers, and makers, and provide those people with the resources they need to come up with more technology: laboratories, materials, assistants, cleaners, time to think, a developed system to disseminate and exchange ideas. But there’s absolutely no mention of a university in Panem. So one of the social/economic fantasies that this book is expressing is the idea that it is possible to produce new technologies without a university sector.
This may be true, of course (although Collins doesn’t provide any alternative means of giving people access to the information and training they need to become scientific/technological researchers), but it’s – well, it’s sort of alarming for me as a university lecturer to imagine that most people think the university sector could simply be removed from the social structure without any negative effects, but beyond that, it’s really interesting. It reminded me, too, of J K Rowling’s official statement that there is no wizarding university in the Potterverse.
As someone who’s really invested in the idea of the university, and in the idea that universities have important functions to serve for the societies they’re in, I’m really struck by the fact that two of the most popular and widely-circulated imaginary societies of the last couple of decades completely omit the university,*** as extraneous to their concerns, as unnecessary. What does this mean? What kinds of fantasies about knowledge-production, about education, about the place of research in society, underpin this omission?
And this is a small enough project – unlike a tracing of the whole set of fantasies which underpin The Hunger Games’ throwaway worldbuilding (on what basis has Collins decided what can be left out, and what must be put in?) – for me to envisage doing something about it. When I carried on thinking about it, I realized that where imaginary universes do have universities, they’re very often located in the past. I recently reread Diana Wynne Jones’s The Year of the Griffin, which I wish I could get every first-year university student IN THE WORLD to read, and not only is that a fantasy society (and hence, broadly, imaginatively associated with the mediaeval over the modern, although one of its lead characters is a genetic biologist, so, go figure), but also, the plot is about how the university used to be a fantastic resource for its society until it became completely instrumental to the chief industry of the nation, at which point all the knowledge died out, and we have to recall the Great Founder of the University to put things right in a Return-of-the-King-style classic high-fantasy ending. So a university doubly associated with the past, there. And of course the most popular/famous speculative-fiction representation of a university in recent years must be Pratchett’s Unseen University: again, a quasi-mediaeval world.
So this has spun off completely from The Hunger Games now, to the extent that I might in all seriousness do a special journal article or a book of essays about contemporary representations/constructions of the university, and/or possibly how they’ve changed over time (I don’t know if education/universities are more common in SF from the 1970s and 1980s, or if it’s just that I read more high-minded SF from the 1970s and 1980s and trashier contemporary SF). Would any of you be interested in this (or know anyone who would?) Do you have suggestions for books to read or research already being done on this topic?
*Okay, just quickly: (1) it is a wilderness-survival deal, not a gladiatorial fight to the death as I was promised; (2) I didn’t even learn anything about wilderness survival beyond the classic Katniss gem ‘Water flows downhill’; (3) where are the cameras and why do they not get destroyed by the fireballs, etc; (4) this would be PHENOMENALLY boring to watch; (5) what is the audience’s investment, anyway? The Ancient Romans never altered the rules of a gladiatorial contest because they were following the contestants’ ‘emotional journey’; (6) HOW do you write 200 VERY BORING pages about a gladiatorial fight to the death and never clarify how your protagonist feels about killing or about the system which has forced her into it; (7) if you’re not going to clarify those feelings, could you possibly SPARE US the ‘OMG I don’t know if a BOY likes me, I don’t know if I like a BOY’, which frankly makes me feel a bit sick when I have to cut back and forth between that and teenagers getting eaten by a pack of mutant dogs.
** I would just call this blog tl;dr if I could put semicolons in the URL.
***I typed here “There are lots of other things that are absent in both, of course, like cleaners”, but then I remembered that of course Rowling has the House Elves. I’m not sure I can think offhand of other things that are absent from both universes. Oh – ha, homosexuality, of course. [Yes, yes, Dumbledore, I know.]